The past 15 years have been a rickety, terrifying roller coaster for the U.S. alcohol industry. Millennials have spurned the former cash cow of cheap, mass-market beer to careen among a series of unpredictable booze trends including flavored malt beverages such as Mike’s Hard Lemonade, craft beer, rosé, whiskey, and fancy cocktail bars. With canned cocktails, brands seem to have finally arrived at a trend in time to meet consumer demand instead of chase it. The middlebrow fanciness of cracking open a cold Moscow mule in a friend’s backyard might be just the thing to satisfy a generation whose desires often outpace its disposable income.
According to Eric Schmidt, the director of alcohol research at the industry consulting group Beverage Marketing Corporation, the tricky thing about selling booze to young people right now is that they know too much about the alcohol options available to them. “The amount of information that this generation can get is huge,” he says. He credits the shift in knowledge to social media, where you can easily track celebrities and other cool, affluent, influential people to see what they’re doing—and consuming. Young people have “become a little bit more discerning, and what they look for is things off the beaten path,” Schmidt says. “Baby Boomers were drinking Budweisers at this age.”
That burgeoning sophistication fueled an explosion in cocktail culture and craft beer, and the big challenge for brewers and distillers has been making that experience portable. “Canned cocktails are the final frontier,” says Laura Johnson, the owner of You & Yours Distilling in San Diego. “We’ve put high-quality wine in cans and people have come around to that. We have craft beer in cans and that’s the norm. But having a high-quality canned cocktail that’s not a Smirnoff Ice is very new.” Until recently, canning a well-balanced, fresh-tasting cocktail was prohibitively difficult with the techniques and equipment available. Thanks to advances in packaging technology, getting high-quality results is less arduous, and more manufacturers are giving it a shot.
Johnson’s distillery launched three flavors of ready-to-drink vodka and gin cocktails in October, and she says consumer response has been so enthusiastic that the company is expanding its distribution to the East Coast and adding five new flavors this year. But that expansion still faces obstacles. Distribution laws vary widely by state and frequently keep products containing actual liquor out of grocery stores. Meanwhile, hard seltzers, a spiritual cousin of canned cocktails that are malt-based like beer and contain less alcohol, don’t face similar restrictions or the higher taxes often levied against distilled spirits. Looser regulations have undoubtedly helped fuel hard seltzer’s own meteoric rise: Schmidt says that 100,000 cases were sold in the United States in 2013, but that this year the number could hit 50 million.